The Health Minister's lockdown escapades forced the Prime Minister between a rock and a hard place, with no clear successor if she were to sack him, a top political commentator suggests.
It emerged on Tuesday that not only did Dr David Clark visit a Dunedin mountain bike trail during the nationwide lockdown, but the Health Minister also drove 20km with his family for a beach walk. His wife even questioned the trip, but he made the call that it was acceptable.
As Jacinda Ardern said on Tuesday, in normal circumstances Dr Clark's violation of the lockdown rules would see him booted out of the health portfolio, but she decided against that, concerned about the resulting disruption in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, he was stripped of his Associate Finance Minister role and kicked to the bottom of the Cabinet rankings.
Political commentator Dr Bryce Edwards told Newshub that Ardern was forced into a challenging position. He says even if the Prime Minister could get rid of Dr Clark, there's no clear successor.
"Jacinda Ardern has faced a very difficult decision in dealing with her Minister of Health because he clearly had broken rules and became an embarrassment to the Government," he said.
"But because of the crisis, it would be damaging for her to get rid of him at the moment. It's not clear who would replace him. It's not clear that Ardern has the talent in the Cabinet that could immediately step up and be the Minister of Health. She has had to make a pragmatic decision.
"I'm not sure in the end it is going to be one that is going to survive well. He really is a lame duck Minister of Health. Clark has embarrassed himself and he has obviously embarrassed Jacinda Ardern and that is very clear to the whole of the nation. It is very hard to come back from that."
But having the Health Minister at the bottom of the Cabinet rankings may also open Ardern and the Government up to criticism.
"I think it is a problem for the Government and it is a problem for Jacinda Ardern that this major portfolio of health during a pandemic crisis is now held by the 20th ranked person in the Cabinet and really you would expect the health portfolio during a crisis like this would be held by one of the most senior politicians in a Government," Dr Edwards said.
There were already signs of possible internal issues, Dr Edwards said, with Dr Clark not fronting for most of the Government's daily updates and basing himself in Dunedin. The Prime Minister has said he is working from home like other New Zealanders.
"He's in lockdown and so, obviously, remains in the same place that he has all the way through lockdown been in, and that is in Dunedin," Ardern said on Sunday.
"I expect him to model the same behaviours while we're in lockdown as others. He continues to do his job, and many other New Zealanders continue to do their jobs from the place that they are in lockdown."
When asked on The AM Show on Tuesday whether he would stand down from Parliament at the September election, Dr Clark said he hadn't yet given thought to that and was focussed on New Zealand's response to the COVID-19 outbreak, which has infected more than 1100 people in the country and killed one.
Dr Edwards said Dr Clark is essentially now just minister in name only and doubts he will stay in the health portfolio once COVID-19 is contained.
"I think it is the consensus now that David Clark's ministerial future is very dark. He is not going to be able to survive this and continue as Health Minister once this crisis is over," he said.
"The public are going to be quite right to question whether David Clark has the leadership potential to remain as Minister of Health."
Recognising that trip to the beach was a clear breach of the nationwide rules, Dr Clark said in a statement on Tuesday that as Health Minister he shouldn't just be following the rules, but setting an example for all Kiwis.
"At a time when we are asking New Zealanders to make historic sacrifices I've let the team down. I've been an idiot, and I understand why people will be angry with me," Dr Clark said.
He said as well as his beach trip, he drove his family to a walking track about 2km away from their home and has gone for several runs locally. He says that is within the rules.
Dr Clark came under fire last week after his van was pictured at a Dunedin mountain biking tracking more than 2km from his home. He confirmed he drove to the park for a ride on the 'The Big Easy' trail.
He told Newshub at the time: "While cycling on gravel tracks is one of my usual forms of exercise these are not usual times".
"Even though I deliberately opted for an easy, local track, on reflection I realise I should have chosen a better option such as walking, running, or cycling on the flat."
Dr Clark apologised to the Prime Minister for that, but did not offer his resignation.
The nationwide lockdown was imposed nearly two weeks ago in an effort to limit person-to-person contact and therefore potential exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus which has spread across the globe. People cannot leave their homes unless it is absolutely necessary, non-essential businesses must close and schools have been shut.